Universal Credit (UC), the government's £2.4 billion bid to unify the UK's six main benefits systems is facing significant communication and project management problems in addition to its widely reported technology challenges.
While the IT problems related to UC have been widely reported, such as the implementation delays and the writing off of millions of pounds spent on IT assets, one council's experience highlights that technology is not the only issue. Top-down communication appears to be another major problem.
Rugby Borough Council is a UC pathfinder authority and is part of the scheme's national progressive rollout, but an official there has likened its efforts to communicate with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as "banging your head against a brick wall".
The council, which agreed to be in the second tranche of local authorities chosen to run UC pilots went live with the system in November 2013. However, despite real enthusiasm to be part of the trials, officials at Rugby are frustrated by the problems they have had in getting answers to questions about UC.
"A lot of people have been hammering it (Universal Credit), but for some customers UC is brilliant," David Wortley, benefits manager at Rugby Council, told the Civica Annual Conference in Manchester.
"The very first customer who applied for UC in Rugby said it was a wonderful improvement on beforehand. He was an agency worker who previously had to sign on and off when he got a few days' work. He would turn down work and stay on JSA (Job Seekers' Allowance) due to the 16-hour work limit [only those working less than this a week can claim JSA]. His claim now stays open in UC."
He added that the system is also proving useful in stopping benefit fraud, as people trying to claim for UC while on other benefits can be easily identified.
The implementation of UC "has rebuilt our relationship with the local Job Centre Plus (JCP)," said Wortley. But "nationally, it's like banging your head against a brick wall, I'm afraid."
The Rugby council official highlighted communications issues, a top-down command-style approach and a lack of understanding of how centrally-driven directives actually play out on the ground. These are issues thrown up time and again in the analysis of IT project failures - in both the private and public sectors.
One example cited showed both the difficulty of communications with, and a lack of understanding of data governance in, Whitehall. The DWP said it only wanted to deal with one general email address from the council, and that it did not want to receive emails from anywhere else in the authority apart from this centralised email account. The council objected to this approach for dealing with confidential, personal information because a centralised email address is not as secure as staff email, and is not audited in the same way.
Despite these concerns, DWP's initial response was to say that they would not even read emails sent from any other address. In the end, the issue was escalated up several tiers of DWP management before the department decided it would accept emails from different Rugby council addresses.
There were problems with basic communications even before the trial went live. The council was told on 10 July 2013 that it would be part of the UC pilot from October, yet the council had basic queries that the DWP failed to answer until a meeting in September. In the end the launch of the Rugby pilot was delayed until November 2013.
There was an issue over training. The DWP did not tell the council about a vital training event for local authority staff that was due to be delivered just two days before go-live. Fortunately Rugby Council officials found out anyway and were able to move the training to two weeks before go-live instead.
There may be a temptation to brush off such issues as administrative glitches or moaning by local government, but it is project management 101 that testing and training are essential in any technology and business process reorganisation project. As Wortley put it to the Civica conference: "Support for local authorities needs to improve."
Process before reality
The Rugby experience also raises concerns about the DWP's determination not to allow pilot authorities to "deviate from the process". Observers fear this means that the trials are less about getting feedback on what works and what doesn't, and more about simply practising the rollout of a pre-determined, inflexible business process.
Wortley highlighted an example drawn from the real world experience of local authority benefit staff and the efforts by Rugby Council to help make UC a success: "If a person has no access to IT or has very limited IT skills, the job centre will refer them to the council. Our role will be to point them to self-service internet access devices, or if they can't use the PC at all, the benefits team will fill the form in on their behalf," he said.
Part of making any benefit claim is providing documentation to support the claim. However, despite having trained staff to help those claimants who need assistance, "we are not able to take documentation for the DWP," said Wortley. "We offered to. It was turned down."
"Even though they say 'we want to change, we want to innovate', in reality, process is key. Do not deviate from the process."
He added: "I do support UC. But the administration leaves a lot to be desired."
Frustration extends to what should be simple matters of branding. In rebuilding its website, Rugby wanted to put UC branding on all the pages relating to the benefit. Despite applying for the emblem in October 2013, however, Wortley still has not received an answer from DWP, three months on.
"It's been escalated to the top of UC. Still no answer," he said, adding that other queries raised in November are still awaiting responses as well.
So far, Rugby counts just 70 claimants on UC - significantly lower than the 100 UC claimants a month that it had been told to expect.
Currently only newly-unemployed, single claimants are being brought onto the UC system, but there are plans to expand this to couples (an expected 150 a month) in the summer and families (an expected 200 a month) in the autumn.